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Higher Education Modules

Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture

Class 1: Early AIDS History and Emerging Infectious Diseases

This class begins with an introduction to the environmental and social factors that have shaped the emergence of infectious diseases in the past. In recent decades, there has been renewed public and official concern about infectious disease as a major public health threat. As A.J. McMichael notes, public anxiety has been particularly evident within the media-driven culture of the United States, as American authors have warned of coming plagues and the menace of emerging infections. A global, ecological view of emerging diseases helps place the appearance of AIDS and other diseases within a broader context. By closely analyzing the process of emergence, we can identify a variety of social and environmental influences involved in the spread of “new” infectious diseases like AIDS. Historians Elizabeth Fee, Nancy Krieger, and Victoria A. Harden illustrate how perhaps more than any other disease, AIDS offers a complex and vivid example of the ways in which people create multiple, contested explanations of health and illness. In recounting early experiences with the disease, Harden maintains that AIDS history can also tell us a great deal about ourselves. Writing at a point in time when AIDS was only a decade old, Fee and Krieger reveal how history can play an important part in shaping our understanding of emerging diseases, as well as collective social, cultural, and political reactions to diseases more broadly. Students are asked to analyze an example of one particularly poignant response to AIDS, a document that became known as “The Denver Principles,” which emerged from the National Association of People With AIDS Conference in 1983. Students should read each of the primary and secondary sources listed below before coming to class. Discussion questions may be provided to students in advance.

Secondary Sources:

Fee, Elizabeth and Nancy Krieger. “Understanding AIDS: Historical Interpretations and the Limits of Biomedical Individualism.” American Journal of Public Health 83 (October 1993): 1477-1486. Accessed April 30, 2013.

Harden, Victoria A. “Emergence in Silence.” Prologue in AIDS at 30: A History. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.

—. “What is this New Disease?.” Chap. 1 in AIDS at 30: A History. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.

McMichael, A.J. “Environmental and Social Influences on Emerging Infectious Diseases: Past, Present and Future.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 359 (July 29, 2004): 1049-1058. Accessed April 30, 2013.

Primary Sources:

“The Denver Principles.” (PDF | Transcription) Statement from the advisory committee of People with AIDS at the Second National AIDS Forum, Denver Colorado, 1983.

Discussion Questions
  1. What social and environmental influences shaped the emergence of AIDS in human populations? What can we learn from emerging infections and the process of “emergence”?
  2. What does Harden mean when she suggests AIDS emerged in silence? What can AIDS history tell us about ourselves? What factors were involved in defining AIDS as a new disease? What factors are important to consider regarding the social and political context at the time?
  3. What do Fee and Krieger mean when they write that there were three different “historical constructions or paradigms” of disease that shaped popular and scientific understanding of AIDS? What were the main features of the different paradigms, what impacts did they have on understanding the disease, and what main points are used to critique each? How and why should understanding and preventing AIDS be a “collective enterprise”?
  4. What does the Denver Principles document tell us about the experiences of people living with AIDS in the early 1980s? How do the recommendations constitute “self-empowerment”? What rights are emphasized and why?